Falcons need to find answers and an identity

sports@macon.comSeptember 30, 2011 

The Atlanta Falcons look like they are trying to find their identity through the first three weeks of the season. That’s unusual for a group that has been together now for four seasons.

When Atlanta traded a bunch of draft picks to get Julio Jones, we assumed the Falcons were going to open up the offense more. The goal was to have more big plays and to go down the field. But, so far, the passing game has consisted of short passes and the hope the receivers can go a long way.

That’s attributed, of course, to lousy protection by the offensive line. The line has not protected quarterback Matt Ryan at all. He has been sacked 13 times and hit 21 times, and if that continues, we may see backup Chris Redman before too long.

It’s still odd that the Falcons, and specifically Ryan, have not gone deep more this season. Jones is clearly talented and has the ability to be a breakout receiver, and Roddy White is one of the best in the league. But we’ve mostly seen small pass plays so far.

Now the argument could be made that the Falcons are doing what opposing defenses give them, but that’s just a bit shallow. That’s what team members said that after losing in Chicago. The Bears took away the long pass plays, they argued. Then, the next week, New Orleans lit up Chicago as Drew Brees threw the ball downfield all day.

Atlanta has Jones, White and future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez. Those are threats who should support passing the ball downfield. Can Ryan do that? Some have questioned that. But to not even try it, to spread out the field a bit, has been puzzling.

Then there’s the running game. Remember how head coach Mike Smith said when he took the job that the Falcons were going to run the football and stop the run? Well, they didn’t do that Sunday against Tampa Bay.

Tampa Bay entered the game as the second-worst team in the league against the run. Yet the Falcons ran the ball only 15 times for 30 yards. How is that a recipe for success?

Again, go back to the offensive line. The loss of free agent Harvey Dahl looks significant so far, as Garrett Reynolds has not looked very good. Sam Baker has been beaten at times, and the Falcons just got center Todd McClure back last week.

But is that really an excuse for not running the ball more than 15 times against a team that had not done well against the run so far this season?

Michael Turner is one of the best running backs in the game, but he had only 11 carries Sunday. He had only 10 carries (with 100 yards) in the opener against Chicago, and Atlanta lost that one, too.

It seems pretty clear that when Turner runs the ball a lot, the Falcons win. Since he joined the team in 2008, Turner has run the ball 20 times or more in 24 games. Atlanta is 22-2 in those games.

When Turner has run the ball fewer than 20 times since 2008, the Falcons are 10-12.

It makes no sense that the acquisition of Jones would cause the Falcons to get away from the reason they have been successful the past three years. They can throw the ball down field more to Jones and White and still run the football.

But, right now, they don’t look like they know what to do. They are searching, and maybe changes on the offensive line will be the answer. But if they don’t do something soon, it’s going to be too late for Atlanta to be a significant team in the NFC this season.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com.

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